So you’ve got 24 hours to see Rio de Janeiro. First let’s get some facts straight. Rio’s nickname is Cidade Maravilhosa or the Marvelous City and its inhabitants are called Cariocas. It’s the only city where the rich live in the flats and the poor in the hills. It’s also the only city (or so the locals say) where you can be robbed at gunpoint and five minutes later the thief will return remorseful and give back your cash—plus directions to your hotel. It would probably take 24 years to really understand this metropolis of 7 million people, but in a day you can attempt to skim the surface.
For a few hours, allow yourself to be a total tourist. The gigantic statue of Christ the Redeemer atop Corcovado Mountain is one of those rare “must-see” traps that doesn’t disappoint at all. Feel the air cool as you ride the Corcovado Cog Railway to the top of the peak, or if you’re feeling energetic you can walk to the top through the lush forest of Tijuca National Park. Marvel at Rio’s incredible natural diversity from 360-degree views, as your eyes wander from lake to mountain to jungle to beach. Just make sure you pick a relatively clear day; views from the 2,329-foot peak are frequently obscured by mist and clouds even when the beaches below are sunny.
Rua Cosme Velho 513, Cosme Velho
|Christ the Redeemer|
After jostling for photo angles with the throngs of vacationers at Corcovado, you may be craving a drink… and perhaps a more authentic Rio experience. Head to Champanharia Ovelha Negra, located in the well-heeled and traditional neighborhood of Botafogo, away from the tourist track of Ipanema and Copacabana. At Ovelha Negra’s champagne happy hour, tight T-shirt wearing waiters carry buckets of bubbly and ice to a fashionable and very local crowd. Wednesday night is apparently the best, but the place is happening on any weeknight. The rustic space features a long, wooden table through the center of the room that promotes socializing—if you can speak Portuguese that is. You’ll be the only gringo there. Be sure to arrive by 7p.m. at the latest, after that you’ll have to wait outside for a table.
Rua Bambina 120, Botafogo
|Rio at night is both sultry and stunning. Photo by Byron Perry|
Brazilians don’t eat as late as their Argentine rivals, but they’re not early birds like Americans. By 8:30 you’ll probably be ready for some nourishment, and the restaurants won’t be empty. Hop in a cab from Botafogo and head to nearby Ipanema for some churrascaria, the ubiquitous—but extremely tasty—Brazilian barbecue. Porcao isn’t the most fancy churrascaria in Rio (though it’s not inelegant), but it is the best. Tuxedo-clad servers lug around gigantic skewers of charred meat to salivating costumers, but vegetarians won’t feel left out as the deluxe buffet offers countless salads and side dishes. There’s even sushi and sashimi, and the less feint of heart can munch on chicken hearts. But the best piece of meat (ask anyone) is picanha, a fatty cut from the top sirloin that’s thinly sliced onto your plate.
Rua Barao da Torre 219, Ipanema
Walk or waddle from Porcao down Rua Vinicius de Moraes to a little bossa nova club called Vinicius. Street and venue are both named after legendary poet and lyricist Marcus Vinicius da Cruz de Mello Moraes, who penned the hit “The Girl from Ipanema.” The tiny Vinicius feels sort of like a cross between a piano bar and someone’s cool second story apartment, with ferns in every corner and big windows to look down upon the street. The tables are closely crammed together and the stage isn’t much more than a soapbox, but the club features all of the best bossa nova talent in Rio. Check the schedules that they post out front; the best act is eminent diva Maria Creuza, who collaborated with the club’s namesake back in the day.
Rua Vinicius de Moraes 39, Ipanema
Start off your day with a juice blend and a ham and cheese croissant before heading to the beach. Polis Sucos in Ipanema is the most popular place for health nut Cariocas to get their daily natural fix of vitamins and minerals. You can spoon through a deliciously frozen cup of acai berry pulp (said to improve energy and cleanse) or gulp down a blend of your own creation. Polis Sucos has dozens of exotic fruits—including many from the Amazon that you probably won’t recognize unless you’re a botanist—that you can combine at will.
Rua Maria Quitéria 70, Ipanema
If you visit Rio de Janeiro and don’t go to the beach, you’ll be doing yourself a grave injustice. Cariocas from all walks of life and the city descend upon Copacabana and Ipanema beaches to exercise and socialize; to relax, unwind, and swim. If you want to observe and mingle with Rio’s citizens, the beach is the place to do it. Head to Ipanema over Copacabana to avoid the transsexual sex-workers and occasional bag snatching of the latter. If you want to try your hand at surfing, set up shop at the eastern edge of the beach known as Arpoador, where you can get lessons and rent a board from one of the surf schools there. Other than that, every posto (lifeguard tower) has a different designation. At Posto 8, the gay and lesbian crowd congregates under enormous rainbow flags. Posto 9 is for the gente bonita (beautiful people) and the intellectuals, and Postos 10 and 11 are more family-oriented. Put on a skimpy swimsuit—regardless of your gender, pick a posto, and get involved.
Pry yourself from the beach, floral wonders await inland! The Jardim Botanico started in 1808 as a royal nursery for Prince Dom Joao VI, today it’s home to thousands of plants and trees from all over Brazil and the world. Stroll aimlessly amongst the charmingly aged gates and monuments; one moment you’re in an overgrown bamboo grove, the next along an Atlantic Forest trail where you might spy a monkey or toucan. You’ll feel very far away from the crowded streets of the city, unless a high school field trip happens to be visiting on the same day... The most photographed spot in the park is a boulevard lined with towering imperial palms that lead into a classical fountain. And for good reason, the mix of European-style design and very New World greenery is delightful.
Rua Jardim Botanico 920, Jardim Botanico
Where to stay
Insider Secret: The Best Western Sol Ipanema Hotel is slightly sterile, but it’s a great midrange option considering its dynamite location directly in front of Posto 9. The hotel provides towels, chairs, and umbrellas for the beach, and a full Brazilian breakfast in the morning. Views from the tiny rooftop pool are awesome. Simple but pleasant beachfront rooms start at around $275.
Avenida Vieira Souto 320, Ipanema
If you’re looking for something a little more stylish—and up-market—check into the Philippe Starck-designed Fasano Hotel on Ipanema Beach. The hotel’s decked out with tear-shaped mirrors and dark wood everywhere and its rooftop infinity pool puts the Best Western’s to shame. Beds are even installed at a slight incline to better enjoy the view.
Avenida Vieira Souto 80, Ipanema